FROM MERMAID TO CRUSADE: TAKING UP THE CAUSE OF CONSERVING OUR OCEANS WITH HANLI PRINSLOO
It’s pretty rare that we get to become what we wanted to be as a child. I, for one, am not writing this from the comfort of my impeccably-interior-designed spaceship whilst drinking my own brand of milkshake. Hanli Prinsloo, however, has come a little closer to living out her childhood dreams than most. “I dreamed of being like a little mermaid,” she laughs, when I ask her how she ended up founding the I AM WATER Ocean Conservation Trust, a global initiative that ‘fosters ocean conservation through human experience’, at the 2016 Conservation Lab. “It started with the realisation that this connection with water, from when I was a kid all the way to snorkelling amazing reefs as an adult – many people don’t have access to that experience. And it’s so easy to be shared, so easy to overcome that fear.”
As a former champion freediver, Prinsloo understands more about overcoming this fear than most. I first heard her story when I was recommended the book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, And What The Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor. Despite being full of high-tech ways to explore the depths, from marine biologists living under the water to deep sea submersibles, it was Nestor’s tales of the brutal (and sometimes fatal) world of competitive freediving that captured my imagination. At their centre was someone who had turned her childhood fantasies of being a mermaid into a successful sporting career and later, a very grown-up crusade to demythologise the depths in the pursuit of conservation.
For those who are unfamiliar with the practice, competitive freediving is “all about exploring the ocean on one breath” without the assistance of diving equipment. Although people have employed these techniques for subsistence for centuries, from spearfishers to the Ama pearl divers, its reinvention as a competitive sport is a fairly new development, attracting daredevils and adventurers keen to confront what, in many ways, is the last frontier for humanity.
However, the thrill of exploration and competition can come at a price. Every time they swallow their last sip of air and head tens of metres under the ocean’s surface, where light cannot reach and their lungs compress to the size of a clenched fist, freedivers must submit to the water’s demands; indeed, after a certain depth the lungs become so small that they no longer buoy divers towards the surface and they instead begin to fall to the ocean floor. To find the edges of human exploration, divers must lose themselves. This requires an ability to master not only your body, but also to enter a near-meditative state at odds with the competitive atmosphere above.
“When you are doing what truly makes you happy and where you feel present and connected, the universe listens”
This conflict is what jarred Prinsloo into reassessing her relationship with water, despite being one of the best in her field. “For a while there it became quite a lot about metres and seconds,” she recalls. “I sometimes think talent is a curse, because we think that if we have a talent at something, we should pursue it and become the best. I went from being fascinated with my own body to possibly a more unhealthy ego space.” This disconnect between body and mind led to a frightening near-death experience in Sweden where because of the blackness at the bottom of her dive, Prinsloo thought she had gone blind: “That was the only time in my whole life I’ve had a near-death experience, and it was completely by choice – it wasn’t because something terrible happened to me, I happened to me, and my mind just completely took over.” A later injury made her “take a step back and think, ‘Why am I doing this?'” It was at this point, when her vision of her future seemed blackest, that Prinsloo made the decision to transition out of freediving and into full-time conservation. “When I did, it blew wide open for me. The opportunities, the recognition, the possibilities didn’t become less; they tripled. We hear it all the time, that when you are doing what truly makes you happy and where you feel present and connected, the universe listens.”
In many ways, that decision is where the real story begins and what has led us to sitting here, next to a barbecue in the grounds of Spier Wine Farm, for the first Conservation Lab. Watching her lead a discussion about why we should care about our oceans (and later, seeing her lead her team to victory in the TEAMWORK pitches, an exercise in brainstorming conservation solutions), I’m struck by her clarity, tenacity and passion – so after hovering peripherally all day in a creepy fangirl fashion, I finally manage to sequester her away from our crowd of conservationists to discover more about I AM WATER.
“It is the challenge of ownership of something that is completely, literally liquid”
Founded by Prinsloo alongside her partner and fellow freediver Peter Marshall, I AM WATER is dedicated to getting people to care about the plight of the oceans by facilitating direct, powerful experiences with the water, particularly for children in underprivileged coastal communities such as those in Durban, Cape Town and Bermuda. According to Prinsloo, the problem they face is to convince people that they are directly connected to something as unknowable and elusive as water. “It is the challenge of ownership of something that is completely, literally liquid. There are no boundaries, there are no barriers, there are exclusive economic zones close to the coastline, and how do we take care of that? To me, a southern right whale feels very much like an African animal, but half the year they’re not here and they don’t belong to us.”
“A first-ever experience that nobody in your family or demographic has ever had, be it because of racial or financial reasons, is powerful. So it’s amazing to see that moment of opening eyes underwater”
However, she strongly believes that by simply teaching people (and especially future generations) about the ecosystem and taking them out for their first ocean experience, this disconnect can be overcome. “I think that people are intrinsically interested in connecting with water, because we come from water. Just because we haven’t done it before, doesn’t mean we can’t do it – and so my experience of sharing the ocean with people is that it’s much easier than they think. A first-ever experience in general is powerful; a first-ever experience that nobody in your family or demographic has ever had, be it because of racial or financial reasons, is powerful. So it’s amazing to see that moment of opening eyes underwater. And when somebody has a powerful personal experience, their impetus to action is much bigger than a poster, or a film, or a tweet.”
When it comes to tourism, Prinsloo doesn’t think that this approach is any less meaningful. Throughout the Conservation Lab, the tricky connection between awareness and action cropped up repeatedly, with conservationists and travel experts alike bemoaning the difficulty of getting tourists to apply the lessons encountered on a trip to their everyday lives. At I AM WATER, they are tackling this issue head-on with The Last Wilderness Project, a tailor-made awareness initiative created in tandem with high-end destinations like Soneva Resorts, which combines freediving and photography to create unforgettable adventures and inspire influential individuals to take home not only priceless memories, but a duty to do what they can to protect such experiences for future generations.
“The blue economy is exploding, so for them to have a deep, connected moment with the ocean and an understanding of its fragility, our experience is that it affects how they do business”
The impact of this strategy is two-fold. Firstly, the revenue can be used to support I AM WATER’s charitable projects, such as scaling their operations across new coastal communities or facilitating experiences for underprivileged children – for example, the Foundation regularly arranges for clients to support a snorkel day at an orphanage they work with in Mozambique. However perhaps more significantly, there’s the hope that a firsthand experience will persuade wealthy clients to conduct their business lives differently, as well as their personal lives. Prinsloo explains, “When you’re impacting paying clients, on a basic level they become more aware of their consumption; but often, especially with the more bespoke trips, these individuals are direct stakeholders in industries that directly affect the wellbeing of the ocean, whether it’s offshore oil and gas, fisheries and so on. The blue economy is exploding, so for them to have a deep, connected moment with the ocean and an understanding of its fragility, our experience is that it affects how they do business. And we want awakened people to do business.”
Prinsloo believes that this kind of fundamental, perspective-shifting experience is exactly what sophisticated travellers are craving, and existing attitudes that fail to provoke such a reaction are letting down both travellers and travel operators. “There’s so much that can be done in aquatic experiences for tourists that isn’t being done and that people want. I think sometimes we underestimate people’s capacity to be challenged.”
This last point about underestimating our capacity to be challenged brings us full circle, from the principles underpinning freediving through to the struggle at the heart of all conservation challenges. Just as immersion in the water can either kill you or bring you redemption, so too can immersion in nature provoke despair or spark hope – however, the choice is always in your hands. This is the choice that faces each of us, every day – but by going back to that direct connection through experience, we can inspire not only those around us, but also ourselves, to carry on fighting to protect it. As Prinsloo surmises, “Go out, go for a surf, go for a dive, go for a hike: go spend time in nature, and I’m okay again, and I can keep going. I think that’s so powerful, and it’s what we’re selling, it’s what we’re preaching. It’s why we’re here.”
All photos by Peter Marshall